In I Remember Nothing*, one of the last things screenwriter Nora Ephron wrote before her death in June 2012, the final short chapter is titled “What I Will Miss.” It’s simply a list, tinged with an anticipatory nostalgia that became clear in retrospect after her passing — and testimony to a life in which the most memorable things aren’t really things (unless you count people as mere objects — if you do, go away) so much as experiences. Here’s the entire list:
Nick [her husband of twenty years, Nicolas Pileggi]
The concept of waffles
A walk in the park
Shakespeare in the Park
Reading in bed
The view out the window
Dinner at home just the two of us
Dinner with friends
Dinner with friends in cities where none of us lives
Next year in Istanbul
Pride and Prejudice
The Christmas tree
One for the table
Taking a bath
Coming over the bridge to Manhattan
The wonder and beauty of this list is that however different your list is, you get the love here. Yes, Ephron’s financial success means that among her items are Paris and Istanbul and more dining out than many of us can afford. But there’s no disagreeing about what should or shouldn’t be on Ephron’s list, because we each have our own list. Her list doesn’t negate mine. It celebrates her life while it leaves room for everyone else’s — it positively invites me, in fact, to celebrate mine, just by being a list, a tally, a memoir of pleasure.
Earth religion calls us to celebrate and cherish the things of this world because this is where and when we live. The brute acid irony of the present age, filled as it is with increasing numbers of people who say this life is the only one we get, is that it is also an age of the greatest ongoing and criminal destruction of the planet. If we will miss the things on our lists, and the quality of our fondness, if not the exact identity of our items, closely resembles that of everyone else alive now, it should make the same kind of deep visceral sense that a warm breeze on the skin or a cool drink in the throat does to help each other increase our fondness and spread the capacity for delight, and to preserve their sources, instead of denying joy to others while simultaneously pissing in the common well. If we were even one tenth the materialists we think we are, we’d worship the material, revere the physical, treating it lovingly and respectfully, rather than bitch-slapping it like an abusive spouse.
Now it’s true that if my wife and I indulged more often in even some of the things on our own lists, we’d be what her grandmother used to say of others with a sniff: “fat and happy.” And the sum of earth religion doesn’t mean merely to stuff ourselves silly with everything Dr. Oz says is bad for us, or vacuum up experiences like we’re snorting coke. But not enjoying the world is along the lines of holding your breath to get what you want. After you wake with a touch of headache, you may be no closer to getting what you want, and you’ll have missed out on pie, or butter, or bacon, or time spent with friends, or whatever your pleasure of the moment was, while you went ahead and had your tantrum. And you’ll have denied pleasure and joy to others, one of the cheapest and deepest forms of joy out there.
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When I consider what if anything may survive my death (yes, even here the possessive creeps in, as though I own my death, one among the many other objects to bequeath to my heirs and assigns), it’s very likely that a love of these things won’t be among them. While I adore blueberries, and that love connects me to a weekend when I was five and I stayed with my grandmother who fed them to me while my parents attended the World’s Fair in New York City, it’s not an essential piece of me. Even my love of silence, which we might reasonably expect to run deeper, is in part a reaction to the noise of nearly two decades of working with adolescents in groups. So what IS essential?
A leap and a turn: stay with me. Much is made of finding one’s True Will in magic, the Hermetic equivalent of salvation or realization or enlightenment people seek elsewhere. As Frater Acher remarks in his introduction to Josephine McCarthy’s Magic of the North Gate, “Isn’t peeling away layer after layer of ego-driven wishes and desires to finally find and fulfill my True Will what drove mages for at least … well, at least since Crowley succeeded in establishing the highly ambiguous term “True Will” as the most successful fig leaf since the philosophy of hedonism to turn your life into a self-centered journey of narcissism?”** We can take a clue from Blake (as long-time readers know, one of my go-to figures among the Wise) who said “Eternity is in love with the productions of time.” This life matters. It’s not a rehearsal, though it is practice, in the sense that musicians and artists practice to keep growing and to continually refine their art. Infinity in the palms of our hands, eternity in our hours: we’ve all had a taste, a hint, the briefest glimpse, though it slips away again into yesterday and tomorrow. Here and now is where and when we always begin again.
In his poem “Love calls us to the things of this world,” Richard Wilbur echoes St. Augustine, who with Christian diffidence in his love of the physical, exclaims of his awareness of the divine, “I have learnt to love you late, Beauty at once so ancient and new! I have learnt to love you late! You were within me, and I was in the world outside myself. I searched for you outside myself and, disfigured as I was, I fell upon the lovely things of your creation. You were with me, but I was not with you. The beautiful things of this world kept me far from you and yet, if they had not been in you, they would have no being at all.” (Book X, paragraph 27), trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin. Augustine struggles to reconcile the paradox of the physical as both distraction and divine presence — incarnation. Here is Wilbur’s poem in response, in conversation, a fine coda for this entry:
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Image: blueberry pie.
*Ephron, Nora. I Remember Nothing: and Other Reflections. New York: Vintage Books, 2010, pp. 134-5.
**McCarthy, Josephine. Magic of the North Gate. Oxford, UK: Mandrake of Oxford, 2013, pp. 7-8.
Updated 5 October 2013; corrected works to productions in Blake quotation “Eternity is in love with the productions of time.” Same idea, faulty memory for exact wording.